An Uneasy Relationship: Nature and Nurture in Early Modern Debates on Wet Nursing

When Jean-Jacques Rousseau published his fervent condemnation of wet nursing in his best-selling book «Emile» in 1762, ‹nature› figured prominently in his argument. According to him, hiring a woman to breastfeed a child whom she had not delivered herself was an act «against nature». Rousseau’s argument built on a long tradition: multiple early modern authors of medical treatises had warned against wet nursing as an ‹unnatural› practice before him. The invocations of a demiurgic ‹Nature› to denounce wet-nursing often served as a means to address concrete or perceived social problems. Yet, it was also connected to an underlying discourse that we might retrospectively call the ‹nature–nurture› debate of wet nursing. Based on humoral medicine, early modern medical writers perceived of women’s milk as a substance that deeply affected the body and character of infants. Even if medical authors agreed with the Galenic notion that every individual had its own unchangeable ‹nature›, they attributed to wet-nursing far-reaching (and often negative) effects on the temperament of infants.

This paper takes this finding as a starting point to reflect on the ways in which princely wet nurses were selected and monitored by their employers. Focusing on German princely courts around 1700, the paper will point out how court physicians, noble courtesans, and princely parents felt uneasy about attributing to wet nurses (usually women of lower social classes) formative power on princely children. I will point out how these different actors tried to reduce wet-nursing to a mere physical task that was to contribute to the princely infants’ bodily well-being without affecting his or her character. I will show that, even if humoral medicine played a role both in the selection processes and monitoring of wet nurses, rhetorical and practical strategies were employed to prevent people from perceiving wet nurses as an important influence in princely children’s early life.